Organic Farmers Unite Against Monsanto In Battle For Future of Food

Another chapter in the ongoing David-and-Goliath-esque saga between organic farmers and the Monsanto Company kicked off recently with a lawsuit filed in federal court. The suit, titled Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, is an effort by a group of family farms, seed businesses and organic growers associations to both protect themselves from being sued by Monsanto and undermine its patents on genetically modified or transgenic seeds. The Public Patent Foundation filed the suit on behalf of these farmers and organizations, which collectively represent over 270,000 members. While it may appear to be just another hopeless attempt by a small band of rebels against a powerful, unrelenting empire, this lawsuit has the potential to stop the bullying practices of the company and undermine its foundation permanently.

As many readers are probably aware, genetically modified food is highly prevalent in the States and an increasing amount of transgenic seed is being used in other countries, though regulatory issues remain. Since the genetics revolution of the 1970s, interest in using gene technology to produce better food has abounded, and an obvious way to accomplish this is to make plants more robust to environmental changes and pathogens, which would ultimately lead to better yields. Monsanto’s approach has been to develop technology that makes plants genetically resistant to herbicides, so that fields could be sprayed with the company’s herbicide, called RoundUp, without crop loss. The way Monsanto immunized plants was to incorporate genes from other organisms into the natural plant genomes, patent their technology and then sell the transgenic seeds to farmers.

So how could a seemingly great technological advance from a company that claims to stand behind farmers end up being voted as the Most Evil Corporation, according to a NaturalNews poll, and become the subjects of some eye opening documentaries like Food, Inc. and The Future of Food? Fundamentally, it boils down to three things:

  1. Monsanto aggressively defends their patents.
    How aggressively? Put it this way…Monsanto puts the “agro” in agricultural patent law. What’s worse is that the genes themselves are patented. So let’s say farmer A is using Monsanto seed next to farmer B who is using seeds passed down through the family. If the wind blows the wrong way, a seed gets caught in the fur of field mice, shared equipment gets contaminated or any other possible way that a transgenic seed or a patented gene should happen to get from farmer A’s field into farmer B’s crops and then Monsanto finds out about it, odds are the company will sue farmer B for patent infringement.
  2. Monsanto has pushed its transgenic seed business hard.
    The lawsuit claims that currently 85-90% of all soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola grown in the United States contain Monsanto’s patented genes, primarily marketed under the RoundUp Ready brand, and its global reach is extending. That’s right — we are all already consuming these genetically modified foods.
  3. Transgenic seeds and natural seeds cannot coexist…and Monsanto knows it.
    Unlike a traditional manufacturer that must continually make product, plants derived from Monsanto’s transgenic seeds make more transgenic seeds as part of their reproduction. Successfully introducing transgenic seeds into crops permanently places the gene in the genome of the species. The lawsuit puts forth that organic canola became extinct after contamination from transgenic seed and warns that the future of many crops, including organic corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, and alfalfa, face the same fate. It is an impossibility for a company to have the scientific prowess to develop this kind of genetic technology and yet be ignorant of population genetics within an ecosystem. In other words, Monsanto merely has to bide its time before its patented genes have found their way into the agricultural systems of the world and then everyone will have to buy its products.

In light of these points, what on earth could this little lawsuit actually accomplish, especially when a group known as the Organic Elite, consisting of Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm, effectively surrendered to Monsanto this past January?

It turns out a lot.

Thanks to a previous controversial lawsuit that went in Monsanto’s favor last year, an opportunity was given to the organic community and anyone else worried about preserving a transgenic-free food supply. The Supreme Court overturned a ruling from a San Francisco district court, which had said that the USDA had approved Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready alfalfa seed illegally and forbade sales until the USDA completed an investigation. However, in that same hearing, the Court also recognized that economic loss due to genetic contamination or gene flow now constitutes “environmental harm,” which is antithetical to patent protection. This means that a technology can only be protected by a patent if it can be shown to be beneficial to the well-being of society.

So if someone could come along and show that Monsanto’s seed technology were causing environmental harm, either economically or genetically, to individuals and/or society as a whole, then the patents might be nullified and therefore not enforceable.

Enter the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association.

As the plaintiff in this case, this association is seeking to protect the farmers from being sued, for sure, but what it really wants to accomplish is no less than hobbling Monsanto for good. If the patents can be rendered invalid, then not only will the Monsanto v. anyone-who-accidentally-uses-a-transgenic-seed lawsuits stop, but the anyone-who-cares-about-food v. Monsanto lawsuits are going to keep coming.

While the lawsuit brings up many issues and emotions about food and the future of society, its worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on the reality of what all of this means.

Without a shadow of a doubt, genetically modified foods were certain to become part of our future.  There are some people who like the idea of food that is completely naturally grown that is never tainted by anything, but frankly, that approach only worked when there was one percent of the human population of today. The bottom line is the world needs more food and businesses need the food industry to be profitable. The genetics revolution opened the door to bolstering the DNA of plants and animals that provide foodstuffs against harmful conditions and organisms to create nutrient-rich superfoods. It only makes sense that in due time foods would be genetically modified to meet the demands of everyone. But clearly that research needed to be done carefully while respecting nature, and the development of products should have been done with a significant amount of oversight.

The real problem that this lawsuit underscores is Monsanto has been cavalier in its business practices. The company has taken an irresponsible stand on the negative impact its technology could have on crops worldwide, instead choosing to focus on market penetration and profits. Science has only scratched the surface on the complex role between genetics, diet, and environment, so how in the world can a company claim that introducing a foreign gene into a seed’s DNA is going to be safe for everything and everyone, both now and in the distant future? They can’t, but the law doesn’t require them to and that’s a detrimental problem. The legal system needs to catch up with the realities of the Genetic Age and fast.

Companies are often given credit for making the world a better place, but certainly no company wants to go down as the one that tainted the food chain. Hopefully, this lawsuit can at least protect organic farmers, but just maybe it will finally put the agricultural giant in its place. Unfortunately, it may be too late for certain crops. We have to sober up to an unfortunate truth: thanks to the aggressive and ecologically-disastrous policies of Monsanto, we may be eating a Monsanto gene with every spoonful whether we want to or not.

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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